Local Government Reform: Greater London — [Stewart Hosie in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 17th October 2018.

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Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Conservative, Romford 9:30 am, 17th October 2018

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered local government reform in Greater London.

Thank you very much, Mr Hosie, and good morning to all. I am grateful for this opportunity to open what I hope will be a wide-ranging debate on the structure and responsibilities of local government across London and the need to embrace the need for fundamental reform that will better serve the people of this great capital of our nation in the decades to come. I wish to begin a conversation involving both sides of the House with the constituents that we represent.

Our United Kingdom capital of London comprises an amazing patchwork of counties, cities, boroughs, royal boroughs, towns, communities, villages, hamlets and estates. I say “London” because that is the name of our national capital—in truth, in 2018, the lines of where London begins and ends are rather blurred. There is in fact much confusion between London as the capital of the United Kingdom, where Parliament and Government sit; London as Greater London, which was how our predecessors decided to construct the shape and boundaries of the city in the 1960s; and London as a wider region that includes what many people still call the home counties.

It is time to reassess whether Greater London, as created in 1964 with the formation of London boroughs, or the particular form of London government that was created in 1998 with a Mayor and Assembly, are fit for purpose in the years to come. We have reached a point where serious reform is needed. I hope all Members agree that we should not dismiss change as too difficult to tackle. We have a duty to look at how we can evolve London government to better suit the needs of Londoners and the wider region around our capital. Let us not be afraid to reconfigure how London government works and to embrace reform and renewal—in doing so, let us return power to local communities, where it belongs, and restore local identities that are rooted in English history but are now in danger of being lost.

As colleagues will know only too well, I am deeply proud of being the Member of Parliament for my wonderful home town of Romford, a traditional Essex market town that has existed since medieval times. Since 1964, it has fallen under the remit of the London borough of Havering, the borough on the most eastern side of what is now called Greater London. Let me tell the House that, despite more than 50 years of being a so-called London borough, Romford, and Havering generally, is still very much part of Essex. Whatever local government structures and boundaries are imposed by Whitehall, the true identity of local people has never been lost and never will be. People in my borough are Essex through and through, and they are proud of their heritage—indeed, becoming a London borough did not mean that Romford and Havering stopped being part of Essex.

Essex is a real place that has evolved over many centuries. It is a historic county with its own identity and distinct culture, combined with religious, social, sporting and business networks. Our postal address is “Romford, Essex”. We cheer for the Essex county cricket team. Our local regiment is the Essex Regiment, which has been awarded the freedom of Havering. Our Church of England parishes fall within the diocese of Chelmsford. Our identity is defined by geography, not by local government structures, which change regularly, depending on Government policy at the time and ever-moving electoral boundaries. A change in the administration of local services in the 1960s did not end our town or borough’s connection with the county of Essex. Today we fall under a London-wide authority, but my constituents continue to cherish their Essex identity. Good for them—I feel exactly the same.

This is not unique to Essex or any other part of Greater London—people from Kent, Surrey, Hertfordshire and indeed Middlesex also value their county identities. London boroughs may no longer fall under the remit of county councils, but we are still very much part of what are known as the traditional or proper counties of England. These are real places with historical, geographical and social identities that have existed throughout the ages and that should be fully recognised as integral to the identities of our towns and boroughs today, irrespective of local government structures at any given point. These structures have come and gone in London over the years, with the London County Council, the Greater London Council, the Greater London Authority, and now the Mayor of London—just as Havering was once under the Essex County Council, followed by the GLC and then the GLA. I hope hon. Members agree that none of those changes should be allowed to erode true local identities.

I raise that issue because it forms the basis of my next argument. Local government in London should be just that: local. It should be as localised as possible, so that local people are able to control what happens in their communities and towns or on their doorstep. Remote and centralised regional government that fails to understand local identities and that rules from the centre, forgetting about the needs of the wider areas of the London region, is never going to be popular. Just like the GLC before it, I fear that the GLA is heading in the same direction. The Greater London Authority and Mayor of London are failing to serve all areas within Greater London effectively. It is clear that the project has expanded too far, grown too powerful, and has become too interfering, too centralised, too bureaucratic, too costly and utterly remote from the needs of the real people, particularly in areas such as Romford and other parts of outer London.

Since the creation of a directly elected Mayor and an Assembly in 2000 provided for a so-called strong mayor model, there has been a clear contrast between the powers of the Mayor and those of the Assembly. The subsequent Greater London Authority Act 2007 accorded the Mayor even greater powers in respect of functions, spanning across planning, housing, large developments, skills and training. While it is true that the Assembly’s powers were also strengthened in 2007, the provisions were too little and too late to provide a proper check on the mayoralty. A comparative analysis of our friends across the pond in New York and of other cities such as Tokyo and Berlin show that their councils enjoy actual powers of scrutiny, which ours in London do not.

It is time to reform the whole structure of local government. I shall set out what the Government and we in the House should consider as a basis for reform. First, the powers of the Mayor should be strictly limited to what borough councils cannot do effectively for themselves. The so-called London plan should be dumped completely, and the power to decide how best to plan and develop our communities and boroughs should rest with the people who are elected to do that job. The Government can help by allowing the development of new towns beyond London, but councils must also play their part in ensuring we build the homes that are needed. Let us give boroughs back the power and trust them to make true local decisions in their local communities.

Why do we need a second tier for planning, when what is required is a more effective means to make local decisions in the interest of local communities, with a faster turnaround, so we can build the homes we need across the region? I accept that there is a need for co-ordination across the entire London region on things such as transport and major infrastructure projects, but the Mayor should be a facilitator or an organiser who brings together local authorities and public bodies to make things happen. Funding for projects should go directly to the boroughs, bypassing the bureaucracy at City Hall.

Secondly, policing should go back to being truly local. Each borough should have its own borough commander, and the tri-borough system should be ended or reformed. The leader of each council or their deputy should have the political responsibility for policing within that borough. Powers currently centralised in City Hall should come back to the town hall. I believe that leaders of boroughs are better placed to respond to the needs of their communities and to work with a dedicated police force, which knows and understands its patch better than anyone else.

Thirdly, the London Assembly should be replaced with something like a council of London, comprised of elected council leaders from the region. I say the region, because this goes way beyond the now outdated boundaries of the 1960s model of Greater London. Transport affects the people of a much wider area—I would call it the UK capital region. The slimmed-down, London-wide authority should primarily focus on transport, which clearly must be considered regionally as it goes way beyond the London boroughs. The M25 extends way beyond Greater London, and motorways, A roads and an expanding road network lead into London. The London Underground stretches from Amersham to Epping, neither of which falls within the Greater London boundaries, yet they have underground stations. Trains bring in commuters from across the south-east and other parts of the region. Airports stretch from London Heathrow to London Southend, and include London Luton, London Stansted and London Gatwick, most of which are not in Greater London. There needs to be a serious rethink of transport in the entire region, and that is what I believe should be the focus of the newly restructured authority for the London region. It is no longer relevant to think of transport just in the context of Greater London. That outdated model needs to go.

The new council of democratically elected leaders would have real authority to speak up for their areas, and they would cost a lot less than the current Assembly. They would understand what is required locally because they would be elected locally and would have an incentive to make things work for their boroughs. With a much stronger hand, they would also be empowered to scrutinise the Mayor—or the first leader, as I would rename the role—to ensure that everything they do is for the purpose of facilitating services rather than becoming an alternative centre of political power away from local communities.

We must also respect and appreciate the distinctiveness of London’s areas. It is ludicrous that the Mayor of London has such an expansive and supreme authority over a vast swathe of southern England. The City of Westminster, with all its grandeur, has very little in common with boroughs such as Havering, Hillingdon, Bromley or Enfield. Across our region are districts with totally different needs, but as power has become more centralised, local needs have become more neglected. It is time for reform.

The unfair allocation of funds is also a major issue in boroughs such as mine—the London Borough of Havering has been scandalously impacted by inadequate funding settlements over the decades due to flaws in the current formula and funding system. The Minister may not be aware that Havering is the lowest-funded east London borough per head of population. Some London boroughs receive more than twice as much per head. How can that be right? That is despite Havering’s having the highest proportion of elderly people across London, many of whom are deeply reliant on social care provision. That dire funding shortfall has forced my council drastically to reduce spending or increase council tax just to stay afloat, yet we send £400 a year per head of population to City Hall. The result is that council tax on a £4.5 million property in Westminster is substantially less than it is on a £365,000 property in Havering. How can that be right? That huge disparity must be addressed. It punishes lifelong residents of the borough and leaves many pensioners—it particularly affects elderly people—struggling to get by.

Devolving power back to local councils is exactly what a Conservative Government should be aiming to do. Why should councils not have the ability to come together to take on the management of public services in the area for which they are responsible? If Havering Council wishes to take over the management of the NHS, why should it not be given the opportunity to do so? If it prepared a business case, worked out the finances and submitted a bid to the Government, and if—and only if—the bid stacked up, why should it not be able to manage health services in the borough?

It is unlikely that one council could do that alone, but a group of councils could. For instance, if Havering formed a group with Barking and Dagenham and Redbridge, with Brentwood and Epping—the boroughs on the Essex side of my constituency—or with whatever other grouping came together, and put in a bid for an integrated service to operate the NHS, an adult college or some other public body, would that not be the obvious way to devolve power back to our local communities? That would give real democratic control over large areas of the state and allow many different models to be developed. Let us think out of the box and embrace such new ideas. I believe we must empower local boroughs in London to take back control—they know what their local communities need best—and end the never-ending centralisation of power in City Hall or Whitehall.

London, as the UK’s capital, needs clearly defined boundaries. The City of London has always been the heart of our capital for trade and finance, with the City of Westminster as the centre of Parliament and Government, but our capital is wider than that. It includes some or all other central areas—boroughs such as Kensington and Chelsea, and parts of Camden, Lambeth, Southwark, Islington, Greenwich, Tower Hamlets and so on. That is the central capital area. It is simply not right to say that the entirety of Greater London is the capital of the UK—that is a big confusion. Very few people living in towns such as Romford, Sutton, Enfield, Bexley, Croydon or Ruislip consider themselves to be living in the capital. Greater London is not the capital; the central area is the capital. It is time we properly defined where the capital actually starts and ends. It should be the central area that I have described. It should include the central areas where special measures for policing, security, transport and development are required to suit the needs of a global city. Beyond that, different priorities are needed for the wider London region beyond the actual capital. I urge the Government to take powers away from City Hall and restore them for towns and boroughs beyond the central London area.

Finally, I believe that it is also time to review the boundaries and names of London boroughs. So many anomalies divide communities because old boundaries have not been reviewed for decades. They are no longer relevant and it is time they were reviewed to suit local communities. To give examples from my own area, Rush Green, where I was born, is divided between Havering and Barking and Dagenham—it is a ludicrous boundary that runs down a road and divides a community. Those areas are all part of Romford, but we stick to these old boundaries from years ago that are no longer relevant. Another example is Chadwell Heath, another part of Romford that is not in my borough but divided between the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham and the London Borough of Redbridge. I know hon. Members representing constituencies across London can come up with lots of examples of similar situations in which pointless divisions exist. Those should be resolved with local consultation to ensure that boroughs fit local communities and meet the needs of local people.

I believe that restoring local identities as well as renaming boroughs where local people wish to do so should be on the reform agenda. Shepway District Council in Kent was quite sensibly renamed as Folkestone and Hythe District Council, dumping the pointless, artificial name that had no resonance with people. A borough such as Havering—that is the nice name of a small country village in my constituency, but a name that does not represent the communities of that London borough—could be renamed the London Borough of Romford and Hornchurch, which is more representative of the borough’s two major towns. We should have a general review of names that match local towns’ identities to those of local people, so that they can feel pride in their boroughs.

I can talk about other boroughs but I am hesitant to do so because MPs representing those boroughs are not here. The London Borough of Waltham Forest has a completely artificial name—a bit of Walthamstow and a bit of Epping Forest—while the area of Redbridge is actually Ilford, and Hounslow is Chiswick and Brentford. We need to go back to sensible names so that people identify with the communities that they live in. Those 1960s names need to be reviewed and it would be incredibly popular if the Government led a review and gave local people the chance to decide their boundaries and restore traditional names. Who knows, Minister? Perhaps names like Hampstead, Paddington, Stoke Newington, Wembley or Finsbury could be restored. Replacing the names of boroughs that do not resonate with the history and identity of their communities would be extremely popular.

I have floated many new ideas for a reform of London government, some of which I hope hon. Members and the Minister will consider seriously. Whatever our views, let us begin a debate on and work towards the change that will bring about better government across the whole of the London region, the capital of our United Kingdom, and, I believe, the greatest city on earth.